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Active vs. Passive Voice

Sentences have subjects, verbs, and objects. To put it more simply, sentences have actors who do something to something (or someone) else.

Sentences written in the active voice tend to be more direct and concise than those written in the passive voice because the subject/actor acts directly on the object/recipient of the action.

In active voice, the sentence elements appear in the following order...
subject ---> verb ---> object

Example...
Maggie smiled at me.
Maggie = actor (subject)
smiled = action (verb)
me = recipient of action (object)

In the passive voice, these elements appear in the following order...
object ---> verb ---> subject

Example...
I was smiled at by Maggie.

Note how the action in the second example is weakened by the passive voice. While Maggie is still the actor of the action, her "agency" is revealed only at the end of the sentence. Additionally, note the presence of the verb form "to be" in the second example, which helps confirm its passive construction.

More examples...
active | I hit the ball.
passive | The ball was hit by me.

In general, writers who want to achieve a vigorous and direct prose style should use the active voice. The passive voice is useful in two situations: a) when the writer must convey bad news or negative information; b) when the recipient of the action (the object) is more important than the actor, as in instruction manuals or lab reports.

Exercise | Identify the following as active or passive...
  1. We love this class.
  2. The class was loved by us.
  3. A pint of cream is added next.
  4. Add a pint of cream.
  5. The game was lost by you.
  6. You lost the game.
  7. Yesterday, I was stung by a bee.
  8. Maggie yelled, "A mean bee stung me!"
  9. You did not pass!
  10. The class was not passed by you.
For more examples, see pages 220, exercise 10, and 335, exercise 4, in The Little, Brown Handbook (6th ed.)
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